29 May 2016
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 4C (RCL)
1 Kings 18:20-39
This passage from Luke is full of words connoting worth and value, and calls into question many of our assumptions about the world. The passage begins with an interesting choice of vocabulary. The NRSV has, “After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” A better translation might be, “When Jesus had fulfilled all his words in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” This is exactly the same vocabulary Luke uses when Jesus rolls up the scroll in the synagogue at Nazareth, and says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” After that sermon, Jesus went on to say that in the days of Elijah the prophet, Elijah was sent only to the widow of Zarephath (a gentile), and Elisha healed only Naaman the Syrian.
Between Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth and the cure of the centurion’s slave, Jesus calls the disciples (through the miraculous catch of fish) performs several healings, and then preaches the sermon on the plain. The sermon on the plain is meant as the charter for the new covenant, inaugurated by the year of Jubilee proclaimed by Jesus in Nazareth. But this new covenant extends to Gentiles.
When Jesus enters Capernaum, there is a centurion with a slave whom he highly values. The word implies value, price or esteem and honor. This slave is important in his master’s household. The centurion sends a delegation of Jewish elders, who tell Jesus, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, because he loves our people and even built our synagogue.” The word for worthy connotes fitness, worthiness, value and even weight. When Jesus approaches the centurion’s house, he sends a delegation for friends to meet Jesus, and says through them, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” This word for “worthy” is the same that John the Baptist uses when he says, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” It implies sufficiency or ability, or strength. Here the centurion is sensitive to the Jewish difficulty of entering the house of a Gentile. It would be almost impossible for Jew to eat in the house of a Gentile without breaking the rules of cleanliness.
Interestingly enough, the slave is the only character in this story we don’t hear from. And he is the one who receives Jesus’ grace. There are echoes of the the Elijah and Elisha stories in this story. In the case of Naaman, it was a Jewish slave girl, captured in war, who tells Naaman of the power of Elisha. Here, the centurion, an officer in the occupying army has a slave, very possibly a Jew, and has built a synagogue, much like Naaman who took a mule’s load of earth back to Syria so that he might worship YHWH.
If the sermon on the plain is the law of the new covenant, this covenant now extends to Gentiles. Jesus ends the sermon by comparing the person who hears his words and does them to the man who built his house on a strong foundation. The word for “build” is the same used of the centurion who has built the synagogue. The centurion has clearly heard and done the word. When Jesus says, “No where in Israel have I found such faith,” I think he is referring to the centurion’s whole situation in Capernaum. He has observed the spirit of the covenant, honoring the people and working for the building up of community. When he says to Jesus, “I am a man under authority, and have others under me. I say to one go and he goes,” it could seem like he is bragging about his own honor, but in fact, he seems to be placing himself on Jesus’ level. He is a man under authority, and recognizes Jesus’ authority to say the word to heal his slave. He accepts his need of Jesus’ word. He accepts the network of mutual honor which holds the community together.
The passage from Kings is also about authority. Elijah stands up to Ahab and Jezebel, who have been worshiping Baal and Asherah. Baal is the god of fertility and is associated with monarchy. Baal fights against Mot, the goddess of drought and death. Much of the royal imagery in the OT, whether for God or the king, is borrowed from the Baal myths. Jezebel incites Ahab to think of the land as his (the episode of Naboth’s vineyard is coming up in two weeks in the lectionary). Baal only becomes the title for a deity after his people have taken possession of a land. This stands in direct contradiction to the idea of the covenant that the land always belongs to YHWH and the people occupy it only as its stewards. Ahab has breached the covenant. Therefore, drought has afflicted the land.
Elijah has his contest with the prophets of Baal, and sure enough, rain clouds begin to form. Clearly, YHWH, not Baal, creates the good of the land. We don’t read the end of the story, when Elijah has the 450 prophets of Baal slain. It is that event which causes Elijah to flee to the mountain where he encounters God. In the drought before the contest, Elijah had gone to the widow of Zarephath, who had fed him from the last of her grain and oil. She understood the ownership of the land belonged to God, rather than to the king. The covenant extended to such foreigners, just as Jesus would claim in his sermon at Nazareth.
The covenant community is founded on mutual respect, rather than on the graded honor system. In the system of Baal, Jezebel asks Ahab, “Are you king or not,” when Naboth won’t sell his patrimony to Ahab. The centurion could easily have ordered Jesus to heal his slave, as the representative of the occupying empire. Instead, Elijah promises food to the foreign widow, and the centurion accepts his place within the network of covenant relationships. One’s worthiness is not determined by the false gods of acquisitiveness and power, but by situation within the covenant community.